By Darren Franich
October 20, 2012 at 06:30 PM EDT
Everett Collection

Tonight sees the HBO debut of The Girl, a behind-the-scenes film about the making of The Birds which focuses on the let’s-call-it-complicated relationship between director Alfred Hitchcock and star Tippi Hedren. Hitchcock famously discovered the young ingenue, signed her to an exclusive contract, and moulded her into his vision of perfect womanhood: The Hitchcock Blonde, the classy-cool patrician gal with a reserved bearing that only slightly suppresses a roiling hyper-sexualized id. Hitchcock’s obsession with this specific look created some of the great iconic female roles in film history…and may have also, as detailed by The Girl, led to a manic and prurient fixation on the actresses themselves. Below, find a guide to the great blondes in Hitchcock’s films.

Grace Kelly: The Hitchcock Uber-Blonde, the regal Kelly played a cheating wife in Dial M for Murder, an intriguing curio mainly of interest today because it’s the only film Hitchcock ever shot in 3D. But Kelly made film history as Lisa Fremont in Rear Window, an impossibly beautiful society gal who’s also a plucky sidekick to injured boyfriend Jimmy Stewart. Still, the single most famous image of Kelly probably comes from To Catch a Thief, when she kisses Cary Grant as fireworks go off in the background.

Kim Novak: If Kelly was the ultimate Hitchcock Blonde, then Novak was the Meta-Blonde. In Vertigo, she plays a character who seems like a typical girl-in-trouble heroine, desperately requiring a noble savior — like maybe Jimmy Stewart, playing a private investigator. But then everything changes, and the film becomes a tale of obsession, with Stewart recast as a prurient overseer obsessed with dominating every aspect of Novak’s life. (If that story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s also the story of The Girl.) Vertigo‘s curious structure means that Novak essentially plays two characters — an icy Super-Femme and a regular girl — and her pivotal performance is a big reason why Vertigo succeeds simultaneously as thriller and psychodrama.

Eva Marie Saint: Fresh from deconstructing himself with Vertigo, Hitchcock made the ultimate lighter-than-air thriller, and cast Eva Marie Saint — at the time best-known for acting opposite Brando in On the Waterfront — as Eve Kendall, the beautiful and mysterious woman who seduces, torments, and ultimately falls in love with Cary Grant in North By Northwest. A vision of wry humor and easy sex appeal, Saint is basically the best Bond Girl that never was.

Janet Leigh: A key aspect of the weird Hitchcock mystique was how often he cast his actresses in plotlines about punishment and male dominance. Kelly is almost strangled to death in Dial M for Murder; Novak is controlled by two miserable men in Vertigo; and in the most overanalyzed scene in film history, Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane is stabbed to death for being entirely too sexy in Psycho. Leigh’s role in Psycho is usually remembered for its shock value — the star of the movie, dead after forty minutes! But Leigh herself gives a great performance as a normal woman who never sees the end coming until it’s too late.

Tippi Hedren: Hitchcock essentially tried to turn Hedren into the new Grace Kelly — since Kelly had spurned him by going off and getting married to the Prince of Monaco. The infamous details of Hedren’s experience while filming The Birds are legendary — at one point, a bird nearly clawed Hedren’s eye out. And to a certain extent, Hedren’s role in The Birds isn’t too different from Leigh’s in Psycho: Both are playing Hitchcock Blondes who think they’re in a romantic thriller, and realize too late that they’re actually in horror movies. But Hedren would have a much more intriguing showcase in Marnie, her second and final film with Hitchcock. With Hedren playing a half-crazy thieving seductress who hates men and gets scared by the color red, Marnie feels like an attempt by Hitchcock to at least try to make a psychodrama out of female (rather than male) sexuality. It’s not entirely successful — at times, it’s outright disturbing for all the wrong reasons — but Hedren’s hard-edged performance grounds the film.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, Blonde-wise. Ingrid Bergman was blonde in her three Hitchcock films, although her star persona feels far removed from the icy cool of Grace Kelly. Doris Day is technically blonde in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, although she’s a pleasantly maternal presence who mainly seems to exist to sing “Que Sera, Sera” in the film’s great climax. And I’m told that Julie Andrews was apparently blonde in Torn Curtain, but no one knows, because no one has ever seen Torn Curtain.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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